Can a single volume demonstrate that cookbooks matter—without arguing why they matter? This is the premise of Henry Notaker’s A History of Cookbooks, a biography of the cookbook genre that demands we read these texts as literature, rather than as evidence of history, culture, or lived experience. Notaker, an acclaimed food writer and literary historian who has spent most of his career in Europe, takes the reader through the cookbook’s evolution from the middle ages to the present day, interrogating it as a literary genre full of craft and creative intention. As Notaker argues, “[s]cholars from various fields…have found these books to be important sources of information about mentalities, customs, ideas, daily life, technical developments, and more. But they have not been interested in the texts of these works per se; rather, they see these books only as possible sources for the subjects they are investigating, such as food history, culinary development, table manners, and social distinction” (ix). Reading cookbooks as a full literary genre, Notaker argues, allows scholars to give full credence to the cookbook as a form of expression. Yet in endeavoring to take apart the cookbook as a literary theorist, Notaker inadvertently reminds the reader of the countless ways in which cookbooks reflect society and history at large and makes us even more eager to scoop up the clues these texts provide.
Notaker directs his comprehensive tome toward culinary historians and academics of all stripes: this is a book that demands the reader keep a “to-read” list to record the hundreds of texts referenced for future study. While Notaker’s focus is largely on European and American texts, he includes some brief discussion of cookbooks from Central and South America, Asia, and North Africa that have gained widespread acclaim. The book is organized into three primary sections: “food and text,” that focuses on varying degrees of authorship and ownership; “the text and its form,” on the literary styles and structures inherent to the genre; and “the text and its world,” on how cookbooks have addressed issues of ideology, access, and culture over time. As a result of this achronological structure, Notaker often repeats certain subjects and themes in confusing order. For example, the circulation of cookbooks between mistresses and housekeepers appears in section one, but the related discussion on rates of literacy, education, and compensated labor appears in section three.
Although Notaker gives due credit to Barbara Ketcham Wheaton, William Sitwell, Wendy Wall and other cookbook scholars, he seems to waver while discussing the value of cookbooks, particularly as they were not always critically acclaimed at the time of their publication. The degree to which cookbook authors were known and praised, and their texts popularized, depended on the status that cooks and chefs held in society. Cooks were disdained in the sixteenth century, Notaker asserts, noting that condescension toward the culinary arts was pervasive both in society and in the culinary texts of the era. Yet Notaker communicates the structural particularities of the cookbook—the conventions of the recipe title, format, ingredients, and instructions, the ways in which recipes built upon (or borrowed from) earlier texts, and how cookbooks were critically received—with a similar tendency to professionalize some authors and disdain others. He lards his discussion of the professionalization of cookbooks with praise, noting the adoption of scientific terms in style and content, while books written for middle-class women represent a commercial endeavor, marketing to “people who had greater resources to spend on food but lacked basic knowledge of elegant cuisine” (125). Perhaps in Notaker’s eyes, some cookbooks are worthier of discussion.
Have cookbooks always been valuable texts to everyone, or only to those for whom they are deliberately written? Like many food historians, Notaker agrees that cookbooks have often been overlooked by literary critics because their practical function is more evident than their aesthetic value. But does the reader engage with the cookbook in a fundamentally different—and less meaningful—way than with a novel, short story, or poem? And to Notaker’s central argument, does the cookbook merit any less serious literary analysis when it acts primarily as an expression of the age in which it has been written and read? The deeper I went into Notaker’s comprehensive volume—and in particular into his final section, on the power of cookbooks to preserve unique cultures, perspectives, and histories in print—the less I wanted to consider them dispassionate, critical analysis. Cookbooks function as living documents, simultaneously capturing beloved memories, crystalline realities, and far-off aspirations. The prevalence of game birds in seventeenth-century French cookbooks demonstrates the prestige and privilege of the aristocratic hunt; the German Kohlrüben-Kriegskochbuch (Kohlrabi war cookbook) was produced in the wake of the 1916-17 winter, known as the “Turnip Winter” for the subsistence diet of turnips, rutabaga, and kohlrabi (261). And as Notaker discusses the work of Antonio Latini, chief steward at the court of Naples, how can he not take into account the philosophical tension in Latini’s position as a cookbook author, to negotiate a place between Plato and Epicurious and to teach readers “how to eat a lot…[but also] how to eat well—to platonizzare rather than epicurizzare” (278)?
Ultimately, Notaker cannot distance himself from the social, cultural, and historical implications of cookbooks any more than historians can afford to ignore them as evidence of the human experience. Whether or not you agree with Notaker’s conceit, that what is needed is a school of structural cookbook criticism, A History of Cookbooks offers the ever-delicious reminder that cookbooks remain a form of dynamic and satisfying literature, full of rich and abundant details (the footnotes and bibliography alone make the book a worthwhile read). Notaker has given us a feast of information and details about the evolution of the cookbook, and no matter what the subject, food scholars are sure to find something worth devouring in this essential text.
Jessica Carbone is a doctoral student in the American Studies program at Harvard University. Her research focuses on food history and culture, particular those of immigrant foodways in rural America. Prior to her doctoral research, she served as an editor of cookbooks and food-focused content at Alfred A. Knopf and Clarkson Potter, and researched food history collections and developed food history public programs at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. She attended the Columbia Publishing Course and received her bachelor’s degree in English and Sociology from Kenyon College. Twitter/Instagram: @jessfscarbone, jessfscarbone.com